Tacit Knowledge & Knowledge overflow

Dr Karen Stephenson has been capturing my reading attention for the last 2days. Her anthropology back ground tints her understanding of human networks and render her work very interesting. She suggests ways of using human networks to increase our power of leadership and to leverage our man management skills. You can understand how excited I could be, as these are precisely themes of my prime interests.

Knowledge and understanding it from her point of view is the starting point. From the documents, I have come across the term “tacit Knowledge” which she defines very explicitly, also rank very highly in my need to understand and to master. I shall summarize daily, my understanding for her papers as I note them for my memory’s sake.

In a nutshell, this is what I have retained today from her:

Knowledge economy, knowledge organization, knowledge networks, knowledge by any other name I call a fad. After listening to knowledge gurus spout less and less about knowledge, I have come to the conclusion, that we are going ‘knowhere’ with knowledge. Too much knowledge without integration tears us apart. The wisdom to integrate knowledge by assembling key people and skills remains the ancient art.

Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people. ‘A friend of a friend is a friend’ or ‘an enemy of a friend is an enemy’ are two more axioms for knowledge transfer through people via their entrusted relationships.

We can summon knowledge from ourselves, but how do we elicit knowledge on demand or ‘just in time’ from others? This becomes salient in knowledge driven organizations where critical knowledge is not only stored in computers, database, facilities, files, etc. but in people. A major obstacle for organizations is that of linking the knowledge stored in people to that in organizational processes. Why? Process knowledge can be transferred on demand and does not necessarily depend on the presence or absence of people. Thus the employee is free to take that needed vacation and the organization is able to go about its business. This knowledge transfer is not well understood for tacit knowledge, the subject of our discussion here.

Tacit Knowledge

When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, there are certain inexorable truths that you convey about the skill, such as where to put your feet (on the pedals, not the handlebars), where to put your hands (on the handlebars, not the pedals) and where to sit. There is much more to riding a bicycle that cannot be adequately articulated – balance, control, the sensation of riding, etc.

The same could be said of alpine skiing. The basic premise of putting your feet in your boots, your boots on skis and pointing downhill is a fearsome scenario that would hardly suffice as advice for anyone learning how to ski. When you can’t define what you know, how do you teach it? I watched on a DVD with awe, the lessons given by Erik Decamp, on the transfer of knowledge in an alpinist context.

Not being able to define what you know usually comes from embodied experience – ‘felt knowledge’ – and is often called tacit knowledge. The adjectives ‘felt’ and ‘tacit’ are meant to convey the ineffable and unarticulated forms of knowledge which come from experience, such as learning to ski or cycle. As we experience life, we store our learning as tacit knowledge in memories and intuitions. What we don’t experience or learn, we can glean from others. Thus, people become knowledge storehouses from whom we can ‘indirectly’ learn, making them our surrogates for direct experience.

In rapid, radical change, this form of knowledge becomes a critical resource for innovation. We don’t realize what we know until the immediacy of the moment forces to the foreground knowledge we weren’t aware we had. If business could methodically and efficiently mine this type of knowledge from its people, then managers and executives could more strategically steer the evolution of innovation. Since business is only as good as its next new idea or suite of ideas, this know-how is essential in a knowledge economy.